Women's Business: 17th-Century Female Pharmacists

Early Italian Pharmacy, CHF Collections

Early Italian Pharmacy, Italian School, 17th century; oil on canvas. Gift of Fisher Scientific International.

Susan Reeve Lyon

Susan Reeve Lyon married a Dutch apothecary named William Reeve. While born in London, Susan Reeve’s parents were Dutch. London communities of Dutch and French Protestants who had fled to England to escape religious persecution included many medical practitioners. Foreigners could not join the Company of Apothecaries of London when it was chartered in 1618, part of the Apothecaries’ attempt to limit competition. Despite this, Susan and William Reeve worked together as apothecaries, and Susan Reeve carried on preparing prescriptions for Dutch physicians after her husband died.

As a widow, Susan Reeve ran her own apothecary shop with an apprentice, Thomas Beedham. In 1627 she married William Lyon. Although the Society of Apothecaries had previously admitted a man who married an apothecary’s widow, it refused to give Susan Reeve’s new husband freedom to practice as an apothecary. Only in 1629, when the Court of Assistants of the Society of the Apothecaries determined that Susan Lyon was a skilled apothecary, did the Society agree to admit her husband if she promised to help him learn the necessary skills. The Apothecaries required William Lyon to put up a £100 bond and to donate £10 and the customary silver spoon to the guild.

In 1632 the College of Physicians of London prosecuted Susan Lyon for selling medicines to Gerard Boate, a Dutch— and therefore unlicensed—physician. Like the Apothecaries, the Physicians wanted to prevent competition from foreigners, although the Physicians did eventually recognize Boate’s medical degree from the highly respected university at Leiden. In prosecuting Susan Lyon, the College of Physicians did not question her competence or the quality of her medicines. By describing William Lyon as “no Artist” and Thomas Beedham as an apprentice to Susan Lyon, the Physicians clearly recognized that Susan Lyon ran the apothecary shop.

Susan Lyon was one of many apothecaries during the 1630s who had problems with the College of Physicians. The Physicians made attempts to control or eliminate the Company of Apothecaries, and engaged in repeated legal disputes with them. College representatives searched apothecary shops for “bad” drugs—in one case prosecuting an apothecary for selling sugared rose petals with added lemon juice, which deviated from the allowed recipe. In addition, the Physicians wanted the right to fail apothecaries’ apprentices on their final exams.